Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

PORTUGAL: New High-Profile Arrest in Paedophilia Scandal

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, May 22 2003 (IPS) - A leading socialist lawmaker in Portugal was put under preventive detention Thursday on charges of involvement in a paedophilia scandal which is the focus of an ongoing investigation.

A Lisbon criminal court judge had asked parliament to temporarily strip key socialist legislator and former cabinet minister Paulo Pedroso of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Pedroso, 38, is facing charges in 15 cases of child sex abuse, in connection with a scandal over a paedophile ring run out of a state orphanage that broke in late 2002.

But the court order instructing parliament to strip Pedroso – the number two in Portugal’s opposition Socialist Party (PS) and the party’s spokesman – of immunity ended up being unnecessary.

The lawmaker himself asked for a suspension of his parliamentary mandate ”until I am declared innocent” and ”until I find out the source of the slander, whose authors should be identified and tried.”

Pedroso, who served as deputy minister and then minister of social security between 1999 and 2001, was taken to court late Wednesday, questioned for 14 hours, and thrown behind bars Thursday.

The judge decided to hold him in preventive detention on the grounds that putting him under house arrest could affect the ongoing investigation into the scandal or even permit the suspect to continue his alleged criminal activities.

PS Secretary-General Eduardo Ferro Rodrígues insisted that Pedroso was innocent, and claimed that the lawmaker was being targeted as part of an ”organised political set-up” against his party.

”We know that my own name has been insinuated as if I were also involved, and that some testimony has been concocted…because I am the secretary-general of the PS,” said Ferro Rodrígues.

”This might be the last fight of my life, but I warn that I will put up a tremendous battle against the fabricated pieces of evidence,” he added.

Attorney-General Antonio de Souto Moura, who is responsible for the legal proceedings that are currently in the phase of judicial inquiry, said he was ”astonished” at the remarks of the PS secretary-general.

”Dr. Ferro Rodrígues will have the opportunity to clarify what he means by ‘political plot’, if his name comes up in the proceedings. But as far as I know, he is not a suspect in this or in any other legal investigation,” said the attorney-general.

The scandal of a paedophile ring that was run from the state- run Casa Pía, Portugal’s leading refuge for orphans and abandoned children, first came to light in late November 2002.

According to the information that has emerged so far, senior politicians, doctors, lawyers, journalists and local and foreign diplomats have been implicated in the child sex exploitation network that operated for two decades, even though police and government officials were apparently aware of what was going on.

In fact, the judicial police put a halt to investigations that were launched in the 1980s.

Between 1999 and 2000, the administration of Casa Pía answered directly to Pedroso, who was secretary of state (deputy minister) of social security during that time.

The first arrest in connection with the scandal was that of Carlos Silvino, an orphanage employee who allegedly set up the child sex ring. He was taken into custody in late 2002.

The judicial police then arrested Carlos Cruz, Portugal’s most famous TV presenter, as well as pediatrician Joao Ferreira Diniz, on Feb. 7.

The arrests occurred after 700 children in one of the Casa Pía homes, which house and educate 3,500 orphans and abandoned children around the country, gave their testimony. Investigators say they have documented a total of 128 cases of sexual abuse of minors.

After the scandal emerged, the director of Casa Pía was sacked and a group of doctors and psychologists was set up to attend to the victims and their families.

Due to the heavy media coverage, which included interviews with anonymous victims who talked about being sexually abused and receiving money in exchange for their silence, the new director barred access by the press to the Casa Pía homes.

Early this month Silvino’s lawyer, Hugo Marçal, was also arrested. And in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the courts ordered the preventive detention of former ambassador Jorge Ritto, accused of 11 cases of paedophilia.

Ritto retired three years ago from a long and distinguished diplomatic career. His last two assignments were as Portugal’s ambassador to South Africa and to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in Paris.

The retired diplomat is accused of taking young boys selected by Silvino in Casa Pía to his residence in Cascais, 25 kms from Lisbon, which was reportedly the centre of orgies in which foreign diplomats and several of the public figures now in custody allegedly took part.

The scandal has taken on such magnitude that Portugal’s conservative Prime Minister José Manuel Durao Barroso called for ”serenity, and confidence” in the justice system. He reminded ”all Portuguese citizens that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty.”

Former prime minister Antonio Guterres (1995-2001), the current president of the Socialist International, which links socialist, labour and social democratic parties around the world, said he was deeply upset by Pedroso’s arrest, and that he was willing to testify to the lawmaker’s good character.

Judge Joao Pedroso, Paulo’s brother, stepped down from the High Council of the Magistracy, stating that ”obviously I’m not going to sit down at the council that governs the judges until this business about my brother has been completely cleared up.”

The chances that the Portuguese political system will emerge from the scandal unscathed are remote, according to editorials in Portugal’s foremost newspapers.

”Paedophilia has reached politics, or more correctly, has reached the heart of our democratic state,” wrote José Manuel Fernándes, the director of Público, the country’s leading daily, in an editorial.

In his editorial, which concurred with the tone taken by other newspapers, Fernándes added that ”if it is confirmed that the network of paedophilia reached the highest spheres of Portuguese society, our national self-esteem will head down the trail of bitterness.”

Teresa Costa Macedo, who was serving as deputy minister of family social affairs in 1982, said earlier this year that she had provided the judicial police in 1982 with a dossier containing testimony by victims and photographs that proved the charges of paedophilia.

The evidence also showed that Silvino was ”simply a procurer of children for well-known people,” including ”politicians, diplomats and even media personalities,” she said.

Grown-up former residents of Casa Pía, including several lawyers, agreed that Silvino was just the tip of the iceberg.

The judicial police initially denied the existence of any reports by Costa Macedo or by young sex abuse victims in their files.

But after Costa Macedo said in public that she had copies of her own, the reports immediately appeared in a police station.

The former official said she had been the target of death threats after she turned to the police in the 1980s.

A case that was opened in 1983 was shelved in 1987 due to ”insufficient evidence,” and the files were destroyed in 1993 on the grounds that the statute of limitations had run out on the case.

But other victims and their families turned to the courts in 2001 and 2002, and the current investigations were opened.

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